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India's power blackout: Why coal is no savior

Gulam’s youthful brown eyes gaze at the coal mines just a few yards from the tiny thatched hut she shares with her family.

The scene before her, in the Jaintia Hills of northeast India, looks like something out of an apocalyptic movie: mountains of tar-black coal, polluted orange rivers, and seemingly bottomless holes plunge more than a 100 feet beneath the earth’s surface.

Gulam’s father was killed in a mining accident. Her husband and adolescent brothers take grave risks in the mines: They duct-tape flashlights to their heads and climb hundreds of feet down rickety ladders, wearing flip-flops, and use rudimentary tools to extract coal from the mine’s narrow tunnels.

Workers like Gulam carry tons of coal out of the mines here each day to meet the growing energy needs of India’s 1.2 billion people. Roughly 70 percent of India’s electricity comes from coal power and because of India’s large coal reserves that number is set to rise.

But reliance on coal has blackened lives and landscapes, and it hasn't always kept the lights on.

This week, some 600 million people were plunged into darkness across India in what is reportedly the world’s largest power collapse. Coal experts like Justin Guay say it exposes the failure of a coal-fired grid to address the real problem: peak power shortages.

“Coal operates at a steady output 24 hours a day - it's baseload,” says Mr. Guay, the Washington Representative of the Sierra Club International Climate Program. “But coal can’t be ramped up quickly to accommodate quick peak surges in demand.”

He says solar energy, improved efficiency, and natural gas are much more plausible solutions for delivering energy when India needs it - at peak times, such as when millions flip on their air conditioners.

Coal barons in charge

In the meantime, coal is wreaking havoc on the environment, particularly here in the state of Meghalaya, where regulations simply do not apply. Coal mine owners, who are also politicians, run the state. And in their race to tap India’s coal resources, they are leaving behind a legacy of massive deforestation and water contamination that could have a ripple effect on the environment and health inside the world's second most-populous country and neighboring Bangladesh.

The influence of the coal lobby has gotten so strong that one of the country's top ministers overseeing the environment hails from one of the biggest coal baron families in the state.

Vincent Pala, the union minister of state for water resources, and his family have made a fortune in mining. He says he’s saddened that many of the rivers in the Jaintia Hills where he grew up no longer support life. But, he says, “future policies can only be made if they accommodate the coal business, too.”

Mr. Pala may officially have responsibility for clean water, but he has a personal financial interest in coal, points out Patricia Mukhim, the editor of The Shillong Times, Meghalaya's oldest and largest circulating English daily.

“The dichotomy is most of the rivers in Jaintia Hills where he’s from are already toxic and no longer support any life. But he has done and said nothing," says Ms. Mukhim, who is also a member of the National Security Advisory Board, which looks at the environment, water, and food security. "Politics is all about money and coal barons have all the money that politics demands. Coal barons can make or break a government.”

A mining policy was drafted by a committee set up by the state government eight years ago, but Mukhim says the clout of the coal lobby has prevented the state legislature from passing the bill.

National laws exempted

India has a national mining law, and a right-to-education bill, along with a ratified United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. The laws are supposed to protect workers and prevent children, like Gulam’s brothers, from working in the mines. But Meghalaya, a traditionally tribal area, is a “sixth-schedule” state, a special status that exempts it from India’s mining policy.

Essentially ruled by its own people, the state has an additional tier of governance called the autonomous district council that is supposed to safeguard and promote the culture and tradition of the land and resources. Mukhim says that instead of being responsible stewards of the land, leaders at all levels have abused the state’s special status.

“The councils should have judiciously allowed coal mining under strict environmental safeguards,” says Mukhim. “But neither the councils, the state government, nor the local traditional institutions, showed any sense of environmental responsibility.”

Where are the regulations?

For people like Gulam, who hails from the neighboring state of Assam, mining policies changes can’t come soon enough.

In July, 15 miners were killed, and a dozen more narrowly escaped when a tunnel they were mining in another area of the state flooded. The owner of the mine waited five days to report the miners missing and call a search. Most deaths in the mines go undocumented, and medical care is virtually nonexistent.

“Imagine the 2010 Upper Big Branch mining catastrophe in West Virginia that killed 29 miners – on steroids,” says Guay with the Sierra Club. “The rudimentary, unregulated mining in Meghalaya is like the Wild West of 19th-century America. But it does not have to be this way. There is no need to put workers’ safety and local environments at risk from coal.”

The environmental repercussions of mining is part of life for people in the coal belt.

“We have to buy all of our water from a town several kilometers away,” says Gulam, pointing to the ash-covered water jugs in the corner of her smoky kitchen. “The water here has acid from the coal mines. If you bathe with it, your hair will fall out and it will burn your skin.”

Despite being one of the wettest places on earth, much of the water from the Ummutha River that flows through the Jaintia Hills is no longer drinkable.

A report by the Meghalaya State Pollution Control Board says the acid runoff from active and abandoned coal mines is one of the major causes of water pollution. The report found that water from several of the rivers around the Jaintia Hills is not fit for consumption. The pH value in many of the tested areas ranged from 2.7 to 4.3. That is significantly lower than the desirable limit of 6.5 to 8.5 prescribed by the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS) for drinking water.

The environmental degradation is evident. The putrid orange or, in some cases, chemically tainted aqua blue color of the rivers here is an ominous warning of the toxic chemicals flowing through it. The fish are dead, and crops no longer grow because the soil is too dry and acidic.

“People are beginning to understand the environmental impacts of coal mining in Meghalaya,” says Hasina Kharbhih, the founder of Impulse Network, a non-governmental organization that focuses on child trafficking, health, and livelihood support initiatives in northeast India. “But with such powerful politicians with vested interest in coal mining, it is very difficult to do anything about it.”

How to protect the environment

The Meghalaya State Pollution Control Board recommended several solutions for improving the environment. They included filling abandoned mines to prevent acid in the mines from draining into the water table, proper management of acid mine drainage in mining areas, installing a water treatment plant, and framing a state mining policy for regulation of unorganized mining activities.

Mukhim is doubtful that any of these policy recommendations will be implemented. She says that like most things in India, the fate of the people and environment hangs on the next election.

“Meghalaya is headed to the polls in 2013,” says Mukhim. “The coal lobby is strategically identifying candidates for the state constituencies, and it is very likely that the lobby will only become more powerful after elections.”

For Gulam and her family, who say they know next to nothing about the politics of the state, the dangerous work continues. Pieces of rock fly past her unprotected eyes as she and her brothers crush coal with a hammer. “These are the difficulties we face,” she says. “We know we are at the mercy of the mines.”